Accordions Are Taking Over Midtown, Thanks to This Squeeze-Box Aficionada

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

It’s no longer just outdoor movies driving thousands of people to Bryant Park every summer; the new kids on the block are here to stay…and they’re probably holding accordions.

Launched in 2013, the Accordions Around the World series has been bringing some long overdue love for the instrument to the curious and surprised audiences of NYC’s iconic midtown oasis. The mastermind behind this series is born-and-bred New Yorker, curator extraordinaire, and arts advocate Ariana Hellerman.

“The accordion is often confused for yesteryear kitsch in America, but in many parts of the world, it's one of the most important instruments that convey the sound of the region” she says. Thanks to Hellerman, for four Wednesday evenings starting July 24, Bryant Park will be humming with a who’s who of international accordion players. The final night of the series is a blowout, all-night accordion festival with bands from all over the world, featuring the instrument and other free-reed relatives (bandoneón, bayan, concertina, and harmonium). It’s as quirky, powerful, and global as the city, just as Hellerman intended.

In advance of the festival’s kickoff, we caught up with the accordion impresario to figure out how she fell in love with the instrument and why NYC needs to celebrate it.

Accordions Around the World Photo by Matthew Eisman/Courtesy of Bryant Park

What Should We Do: For starters, how on earth did you decide to deep dive into the accordion? Ariana Hellerman: It was serendipity. I have a blog, Ariana’s List, in which I recommend free cultural events around New York in the summer, though I'm not as active as I once was. I also use the blog as a way to share my ideas around making the arts more accessible to all. I had written about attending the Festival Vallenato while living in Colombia; Vallenato is a traditional Colombian music form that always features the accordion.

Around that time, I met with Ethan Lercher, director of public events for Bryant Park, who had read that post. He shared that in an effort to create some Parisian magic in the park, it had hired solo accordionists to busk for a few hours once a week. But there was a realization that the public was not coming out to chase a roaming artist. He then asked me, “What do you know about accordions?”

What had always appealed to me about the instrument was that it was played in so many cultures around the world. The same instrument could convey a myriad of traditions and unique sounds. It was also around this time that I became interested in programming for public spaces. Ethan invited me to design a series. Accordions Around the World was the result.

WSWD: What is one place you were shocked to find out had an accordion tradition? Hellerman: Zanzibar, Tanzania.

The history of the accordion in Zanzibar is fascinating.

WSWD: How did accordions get there?! Hellerman: To me, Zanzibar is one of the most fascinating places on the planet. Off the east coast of Africa, all commerce that left or came into Africa via the Indian Ocean had to pass through the island. Because of trade and colonialism, Zanzibar is a hybrid of cultures: Indian, Arab, African, Persian, Indonesian, Portuguese, German, and British.

The history of the accordion in Zanzibar is fascinating. In Taarab, a music form indigenous to the Island, the harmonium was traditionally used and originally brought over from South Asia. But as colonialism expanded its influence, it became easier to secure accordions from Europe, which had a similar sound. The harmonium in Taarab was no more and the accordion replaced it.

Accordions Around the World Photo by Angelito Jusay/Courtesy of Bryant Park

WSWD: Why did you feel it was important to introduce this festival to the city’s cultural landscape? Hellerman: NYC artists and audiences should reflect the city's demographics. I see activating public spaces and, more specifically, Accordions Around the World in Bryant Park, as my own form of creating equity in the arts.

In New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures. In addition to showcasing the versatility of the instrument and providing an intimate and accessible performance experience for audiences and passersby alike, my priority is to give communities where the accordion is played a high-profile space and platform for sharing their cultures in the heart of Manhattan. I aim for the artists in this series to be reflective of the city. While the connection may not be clear, I see my work as an organizer, ensuring immigrant cultures are represented and reflected.

What had always appealed to me about the instrument was that it was played in so many cultures around the world. The same instrument could convey a myriad of traditions and unique sounds.

WSWD: Who are you most pumped about seeing at the fest this year? Hellerman: As I mentioned earlier, Vallenato, an accordion-heavy music form from Colombia, is how I got my start as the founding curator of Accordions Around the World. This summer, it is a great honor to welcome, direct from Colombia, El Rey de Vallenato Beto Jamaica as our headliner. We typically work with local artists, but the stars aligned and the Vallenato king will be touring through New York at the same time as the festival. I’m looking forward to getting in the audience and waving a Colombian flag along with El Rey’s fans and fellow countrypeople!

WSWD: Outside of the festival, you’re also the director of programming for the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. What’s that like? Hellerman: DBP manages all the plazas in Downtown Brooklyn, and we are regularly activating them. Since our plazas don’t have a set infrastructure, we experiment with different orientations of the space and programming. We run the gamut, from ping-pong and fitness classes to concerts and the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Festival, in partnership with all the key players in the Brooklyn cultural scene. It’s been a positive challenge to build a season that is reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood, while also figuring out what type of programming works best and where. I just finished my first year and am learning from these decisions—what works, what doesn’t.

I have a loose rule to try to frequent the 20-plus-year-old businesses in the East Village. Unless they own the buildings, they are most in danger of losing their leases.

WSWD: Your career has largely focused on making art as accessible as possible. How did you recognize this as your calling? Hellerman: At age 5, my NYC public school art-teacher mom began taking me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art each week to sketch. My grandparents were activists and had me singing songs about equality by around the same age. My interests and this work is deeply inherent to who I am.

WSWD: You’re a native New Yorker and have seen a wild amount of change in the city. What’s one thing you miss from your childhood, and one thing you love about how the city has evolved? Hellerman: I grew up in a very different New York. I see ghosts of NYC’s past—old restaurants, neighborhood characters of 1980s lore—in so many places. I miss hearing Ukrainian and Spanish on the streets of the Lower East Side. As for what I love, the energy of NYC is generally open-minded, especially compared to most places in this country today. And while I've been here my whole life, I still have 100-plus things to do on my NYC bucket list—and it keeps growing!

WSWD: As an East Villager, can you give our readers an itinerary of the best mom-and-pop places to support in the neighborhood? Hellerman: I have a loose rule to try to frequent the 20-plus-year-old businesses in the neighborhood. Unless they own the buildings, they are most in danger of losing their leases.

I would start the day at the last remaining counter restaurant in the neighborhood, B&H Dairy. Contrary to the belief that the dairy reference means it's vegetarian, it's a nod to its kosher past, when Second Avenue was the hub of Jewish theater. Get some of its delicious soups and challah bread.

Photo courtesy of B&H Dairy Kosher Restaurant/Facebook

Ottendorfer is my favorite library in the New York Public Library system. Opened in 1884 as NYC's first free public library, it was originally founded to be a bilingual library to serve Kleindeutschland ("Little Germany") and the 150,000 people of German descent who populated the East Village. I still reserve all of my books there and am proud of it.

Photo courtesy of Ottendorfer Branch/Facebook

If you need a place to duck into to read or get some work done, I sometimes set up shop in the mezzanine of the Public Theater. Back when I freelanced, I used to joke that the Public was my office—the mezzanine is quiet and has free wifi, and I’d overhear the conversations of famous directors, actors, and playwrights—all in a day’s work.

In the summer, I like to go to Blue & Gold Bar. It’s been there my whole life and looks like it’s been there my whole life...and since forever. Blue and gold are the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and this longtime haunt reflects the community that migrated to the area in the 1940s and ’50s. It is the original definition of a dive bar; my dad would try not to park in front of it in the ’80s because that would mean cleaning vomit off the car. Drinks are cheap.

Photo by Dave L./Yelp

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